Naoussa’s difficult road

Grigoris Michailos charts the evolution in style and the challenges ahead for Naoussa region in Northern Greece, Macedonia.

Naoussa/Photo by Peter Boccia on Unsplash
Naoussa/Photo by Peter Boccia on Unsplash

Euripides wrote one of his greatest tragedies, ‘Bacchae’, during his final years in Macedonia. In this play, Euripides praises Dionysus Lysios (the ‘loosener’ or the ‘liberator’), the god of wine who was able to help people forget their problems and liberate their souls. The worship of Dionysus Lysios in the region of Macedonia is an indisputable testimony to a place where vines have been grown since that era, 2,500 years ago. 

Fast forward to 2020 and the small, yet beautiful, region of Naoussa is recognized as one of the classic Greek wine appellations. It is part of Central Macedonia in north-west Greece, located on the slopes of Mount Vermion. The appellation is just a few steps from the archeological site of Vergina, the first city of the Macedon kings. 
While Naoussa wasn’t one of the great cities of ancient Macedonia, there are references to its high-quality wines dating back to the beginning of the 19th century. “The wines of Naoussa in Macedonia are the equivalent of Burgundy wines in France. They always sell double the price from any other wine, because of their exceptional quality,” wrote Esprit Maria Cousinéry, the French consul in Thessaloniki, in 1814, later quoted by Dr. Stavroula Kourakou-Dragona in her book on the Xinomavro grape.
At that time the whole region was dedicated to viticulture. However, phylloxera, poverty and war led people to abandon the vineyards, so that by 1962, the area had shrunk to a mere 50ha under vines. Today, according to Greek wine expert Yiannis Karakasis MW, Naoussa has less than 350ha of vines, and a significant number of other agricultural products such as cherries, apples, and peaches are an important source of income for the growers. 

Naoussa enjoys a warm Mediterranean climate with strong continental influences and is known for delivering robust and structured red wines, with depth, complexity and character. The wines can offer a wonderful spectrum of distinctive aromas and flavors such as dried tomatoes, black olives and Mediterranean herbs, around a core of morello cherries and red forest fruits. Many of these wines are able to age effortlessly in the bottle, for at least a decade, developing notes of truffle and earthy complexity. 
The ‘king’ variety of Naoussa is Xinomavro, a pale-colored grape with tannins that need to be tamed and acidity that delivers lots of energy and freshness on the palate. Karakasis MW refers to Xinomavro as “the prima-donna of the Greek vineyard”, while Konstantinos Lazarakis MW, in his book ‘Wines of Greece’, describes Xinomavro as “one of the noblest grape varieties of southern Europe”. It is often described as being something like a cross between Pinot Noir and Nebbiolo, both in terms of character and personality. 

The evolution of its style

It’s been almost 50 years since Naoussa was classified as a PDO region, back in 1971. This declaration, combined with financial incentives from the government, led to an increase of interest in viticulture in the area. Throughout the years, Naoussa developed its reputation due to the excellent work of big companies like Boutari, who didn’t own any vineyards but which bought grapes to make into wine.They still buy grapes from small land-holders across different parts of the appellation and their expertise and knowledge were a catalyst for the development of viticulture in the area. 

Their pioneering work, along with a number of research programs regarding Xinomavro grape, laid the foundations for artisanal wineries to emerge, often grower-producers who decided to bottle their wines rather than sell their grapes to the big companies or local co-operative.Today, there are almost 20 wineries operating in Naoussa.

A classic Naoussa wine used to be more rustic in the not-so-distant past. “The traditional wines of Naoussa were often pale and advanced in colour, lacking sweet, fresh primary fruit on the nose and moving towards an eccentric spectrum of tomato and dried plums, with a tight, lean, high-acid and tannic palate,” says Lazarakis MW. These wines were often blends from different terroirs across the region and the style was been a trademark, mostly among the previous generation of wine lovers.

However Naoussa is not just a single terroir or style of wine. As Apostolos Thymiopoulos, a young producer who devised a more modern style of Naoussa Xinomavro puts it, “Naoussa reminds me of a small Burgundy, with a great variety of soils, altitudes and aspects within a short distance.” With more than 30 different parcels from across the southern part of the appellation, coupled with organic and biodynamic farming, Thymiopoulos’ wines highlight the different elements of Naoussa terroir. He made waves by producing a lighter style of Xinomavro that combined juiciness and refined tannins with drinking pleasure, rising to international recognition in a twinkle of an eye. 

Another member of the ‘gang’ of young Naoussa producers, Markos Markovitis, also works with organic practices in the vineyard. “Organic farming drops the yields by at least 30% which helps towards the phenolic maturation of the Xinomavro grape,” he says, adding that they also practice green harvest when necessary. “These techniques allow for a better tannin management in the winery, producing a more refined, sophisticated style of Naoussa wine.”

It seems that there is more room for improvement and lots of experimentation currently takes place in the wineries. Wines from Naoussa made with care and focus will always fill the palate with juicy fruit and a rounded mouthfeel. They can be elegant and powerful at the same time. Producers like Kir-Yianni or Thymiopoulos increasingly apply whole-bunch fermentation or cold-soaking for the grape must in order to enhance fruit and colour in the wines. Tannins are always handled in a more delicate way, with shorter macerations that rarely exceed a period of fifteen days. Markovitis says that “working with native yeasts exalts as much as possible the idea of terroir” and that he plans to focus more on the vineyard and minimize his intervention in the winery.

Today, the distinction between modern and traditional wines is irrelevant, since very few producers stick to the one extreme or the other. As Thymiopoulos says, “Naoussa is a unique place. My single vineyard wines will help to bring a terroir-focused message to the world.” This will drive the region to the next level.

The challenges ahead

It always takes a long time achieve a world-wide recognition – and Naoussa deserves to be placed among the greatest red wines of Europe, as the wines are likely to appeal to Nebbiolo fans, or even Burgundy lover – but, unfortunately, Naoussa currently remains in the shadow of the great red European wines. 

Thymiopoulos expresses his fears that “while it is true that Naoussa has raised its profile over the years in the international markets, people see the area just as a cheaper alternative to the more expensive wines from Barolo and Barbaresco,” which limits the price of the wines. Moreover, the limited number and the small size of the wineries, with only a handful of producers making over 25,000-30,000 bottles, means that Naoussa lacks the critical mass to establish its presence outside Greece. “It is very difficult to build brand awareness and the wines are far from becoming mainstream any time soon,” he says.

Another major issue is grape pricing, as the economic crisis of recent years has put a lot of pressure on the biggest wineries of the appellation. Grape prices collapsed and many part-time growers either don’t cultivate their vineyards anymore, or they switched to other crops, such as peach trees. This is not a recent phenomenon. Competition between grapes and peaches has been always fierce, since there has been a great market for peaches in the past. 

Thymiopoulos says that he pays up to €1.20 per kilo for grapes from the best sites that yield less than 4,000kg/ha. He works closely with his producers and has convinced them to follow organic management, which he believes is the only way forward. His vineyards are covered by cover-crops and radiate a good health. Today he manages more than 60ha of organic grapes in the sub-regions of Trilofos and Fitia. Yet while players like Thymiopoulos can see a light in the end of the tunnel, grape growing is still not a sustainable business for most producers. 

Markovitis sees an ever more difficult future. He says that, “the region will continue to shrink and more part-time growers will abandon the vineyards since they are not paid well”. ‘Not only that, but Naoussa has failed to attract external investors, as was the case for neighbouring Amyndeon, another Xinomavro land which is steadily growing in size. In Naoussa most of the producers are locals who found an established business from their family and followed on their steps”. With the exception of Thymiopoulos they didn’t significantly expand their businesses. 

“It’s a hard job yet it’s a beautiful one,” he says. “We are here tο continue a long standing tradition and work hard in order to pass the torch to the next generation.” Markovitis says that although circumstances are difficult, “we reshape Naoussa with new ideas, approaches and try to give more possibilities to our wines in the global markets. This is what I would like to fight for and give a chance to my kids for an even better future.” 

Grigoris Michailos

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